Monthly Archives: February 2014

Which Century Did You Say This Is?

papyrus page

One of the old p-readers

On multiple occasions in my endless years of blogging I’ve referred to the last novel I wrote, Benedict and Miramar. Somewhere I’ve heard the advice that if you write a novel and it doesn’t sell, start another. I’ve done that, though I think my own reason has been because I just need to write. At any rate, I now have three novels done, revised, maybe worth reading, and lying seriously unwanted on the shelf. The other titles are The Illusion of Being Here and The Land of Melancholy Spices. (For the record—you keep records, right?—I wrote two other novels before these, but I hope I’ve thrown away all copies of those first two.)

Since the days when I began writing on a kerosene-powered typewriter, we have entered the digital age. The effect of computers on our lives has been deep and profound (actually “profound” means “deep”), and it seems almost everything except bananas is being changed by this technology. Do you remember when we used to hitch up a horse and clip clop through the streets to the publishing house, to talk with a man wearing high collars, and shake hands over the agreement to publish a novel?

I’m not a Luddite, and yet my idea of publishing still involves a literary agent, a large publishing company that has suddenly been enlightened with recognition of how good my writing is, and warehouse pallets with copies of my wondrous book.

In other words, I still believe in Santa Claus and fairies and book stores.

I’m being told to get over it, and maybe I should. Last week after the meeting of my writing group, I stayed talking with two people who have experience I don’t have, and they advocated that I consider self publishing. After all, they said, you have several novels, so why not try this with just one of them and see what happens. As a person who believes in fairies and book stores, I have been extremely resistant to self publishing. That may be partly because I’m old enough to remember the days when self publishing really was mostly for people who wrote badly edited trash that would never get beyond friends and family. Once when I had a radio show about literature, back in New Jersey, a man wrote me asking to be on the show, and he hid the fact (though I figured it out) that he had paid to be published. He hid it because self publishing wasn’t something you wanted people to know, and in those days it was called “vanity” publishing. This event wasn’t that long ago.

The world changes, and here in our digital year of 2014 self publishing really is a different activity. It’s no longer a vanity press putting out paper copies to pile up in your house until you can give a few away. Now the writer can hire independent editors, proofreaders, cover designers, and so on—if the writer is willing—to create a professional product. More profoundly, with the advent of new technology, much of self publishing is not on paper but ends up in e-readers. The changes are enormous, and self publishing is becoming (has already become, maybe?) not only respectable, but smart, and in some cases lucrative. A careful analysis of self publishing by Hugh Howey indicates that while the writer may not get rich, though some do, such publishing may be a better way to go financially than with traditional publishers.

Yet there I’ve stood, with a letter for Santa and a plate of cookies. My colleagues’ point is well taken, that with several novels, why not try this with one of them and see how I like it. And really, no one is reading the novels as it is, so why not? I’ve been trying the traditional route for years, with novel after novel. For one novel I contacted 70 literary agents, for another I contacted 90. You see what I mean. Everyone hates me. You probably hate me.

Therefore I’m thinking I’ll take The Illusion of Being Here and go for self publishing. That book has a bit of magic in it and takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, with some scenes in Moscow. A book with witches and boats. It may take some time for me to get the book out, as things have to be paid for, which I’m willing to do, but in my working situation my income begins to seem uncertain (like that’s new, huh?), so I may be slowed down by financial concerns.

But I’m thinking I’ll try stepping onto that path where 1s and 0s pull us into the old stories of what humans are doing here on this madhouse planet. I’m being told “put down the papyrus scroll, Davy”. Oh…OK.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming)

That Wretched St. Valentine

painting of St. Sebastian

I think she still loves me

A holy saint I can live with, as long as I don’t have to know them personally. Their stories are pretty interesting, and the paintings of saints in the museum are almost always worth the attention, like those ridiculous paintings of St. Sebastian with a placid expression while full of arrows. In fact, I love all those weird, melodramatic paintings.

There seems to be a saint for almost everything (like bee keeping). I’m not sure we’ve yet gotten around to a saint of computer virus protection. That one we could use. One of the most popular saints, assuming we recognize that an actual saint is involved, is St. Valentine, who has become associated with romantic love. I recommend—officially on this blog—that we update St. Valentine, to make him not only patron saint of romantic love but also saint of morbid neurotic obsession. Though I guess that would be redundant.

Years ago a friend from California told me that she and a female friend, at a point in their lives when they had no boyfriends, used to refer to Valentine’s Day as “Singles Awareness Day”. Also years ago I saw an online comment on a Russian site, referring to Valentine’s Day as “All Idiots Day” (День Всех Идиотов, if you want the original).

In this regard, I have not yet met anyone who is a bigger idiot than I am, not that I’m putting all those fascinating details online. I’m only an idiot, not a Kardashian. Let it suffice that I’ve been there. A lot. One of those occasions traumatized me to the point that I began writing poetry, and in honor of Valentine’s Day I present a tragic love poem. In fact, here’s a pretend quote from St. Valentine, “All love poems are either tragic or pre-tragic.”

Types of Thoughts

First there are casual thoughts of fondness.
These flow constantly through my brain like counting the seconds of the day.
I see you at the kitchen sink
passing dishes under the water to rinse them.
I hear your voice saying “I loved that movie as a kid.”
I recall the jacket you wore on a windy day.
I barely notice these thoughts
as it seems so natural to have you always on my mind.

Next are thoughts of imaginary dialogue.
These are more intense, and sometimes during these internal conversations
I try to explain a deep and important point to you.
I rehearse it over and over
so many times I grow tired of hearing it myself.
At other times
you tell me you cannot imagine life without me,
and you tell me that you love me intensely.
(In our imaginary dialogues you say all the things I wish you would really say.)

The third type of thought is focused thoughts of longing.
At any given moment these may strike.
When they do, I’m liable to imagine the feel of you in my arms,
and the desire for you to be there against me is so strong it takes me over.
I tremble and breathe faster.
Or else I picture you sitting across from me,
smiling, perhaps, talking, maybe laughing,
so that I want to lose who I am in that moment with you.

The fourth type of thought is thoughts of hope and optimism.
The less said about these the better.
I cannot keep them out of my head,
much as I tell myself they are only fantasms of no substance.
These pernicious thoughts only exist to lead me smiling
past fields of flowers to a cliff edge
where they will hurl me over.

Finally, though I try to avoid them, there are tragic thoughts.
Perhaps you would call these being realistic.
When such thoughts come to me, resisted and unbidden,
I’m forced to admit that I won’t be allowed to spend my life with you.
At such times I wonder what it will be like to live for years
when you are not there, always.

Then I wonder why I think at all.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry

“What is your book?” she asked

woman reading 1On Monday this week I went to my local library to get a book for a trip out to San Diego, in the golden state of California where the air smells of redwoods and red wine. There is a general truth of life that people like me do not get to have vacations, but that is a general truth, and once in a while when fate grows inattentive I sneak away and manage a little something. So I went out this week for a couple of days to see my friends from Warsaw (I mean the real Warsaw, in Poland), friends who travel more than anybody I’ve ever known. This was the third country where I’ve met up with these dear friends.

And now I’m off topic. Of course if you’re a regular reader of this blog you’re thinking “Topic? Since when did he start having a topic?” So here’s my topic. On the wall of my local library was a quote that held me there a minute reading it, as it talked about the fact that many aspects of human existence come and go, even empires and cities rise and fall, but books remain.

This quote captures the idea that there is not merely a power, but a life in books, as though there is a spirit that goes beyond the physical object. woman readingBy this light, when I behold a book, whether it is a paper codex (fancy talk for “normal book”), a conceptual download inside some type of e-reader, or a book that has almost literally become a spirit, residing in the “cloud” to be called forth anywhere in the world that we can connect—whatever its form, the book is a magical combination of thoughts and language, a combination that touches what we really are. Our bodies change, age, grow old, die, yet our thoughts are still there speaking. It’s as if our thoughts can exist independently of our body.

And listen to this. From the library I drove to a drug store to fill a prescription, and unsure how long I might have to wait, I carried the book I had just checked out, The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. I had gone looking specifically for something by her after hearing an interview on the radio. I was also motivated by the fact that she is a fellow Georgia writer.painting of woman reading

At my drugstore, the pharmacy section has an open area in front with a low counter where we talk to the people working there. As I was waited on, I laid my book on the counter, and the young woman working there saw the book. She seemed to suddenly spark up with interest on seeing it, said something I didn’t catch, then took my order and walked to the back.

I didn’t wait long, but I had time to read almost two pages of the prologue before the same woman called my name. This time, as I went up to collect my prescription, she asked me what the book was. I admitted that I actually knew nothing about it, but I told her I had just read that it starts out with the protagonist saying she is in love with a Benedictine monk.

Having said this, I wondered whether such a plot might be offensive to the woman I was talking to. She was wearing a head scarf, which made me think she might be a religious Muslim, and I wondered whether she might find the idea of someone falling in love with a monk scandalous or offensive. (I don’t claim to be using much logic there.) Instead, my young clerk continued to show an interest, so I mentioned the fact that Sue Monk Kidd wrote The Secret Life of Bees, and that it was made into a good movie.

“I love to read,” the woman told me, and before she finished ringing up my purchase, she stopped to take a piece of paper and wrote down the name of the author. “I’ll look it up,” she said. I told her it’s worth it, and we smiled at one another, and I left.

woman readingI’ve been thinking about how the appearance of the book—an unknown book, for that matter—sparked such enthusiasm. Maybe there is an explanation here that is less interesting than the semi-mystical scenario I’m implying, but the effect this incident had on me was to illustrate the quote from the library. A book has a life beyond the pages, and the woman at the pharmacy wanted a connection to that life. Part of why I write is for people like her.

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Words That Are Too Small

cow parody of MichaelangeloAmong people I’ve met, there are some who imagine God to be an old man with a long beard sitting on a throne. As one of the ancient Greek philosophers said, “If the cows had gods, the gods would look like cows.” But we beat the cows to it, so God has toenails instead of hooves.

It’s natural to the human spirit that we reach beyond physical existence. It requires no special imagination to question where we came from, and God knows we wonder where we’re headed. Even these perplexing mysteries, however, are oversimplified with their focus on ourselves. Where did the universe come from?

In the western world, most of the time the answer is that everything came from God. But what do we mean by the word “God”? Regardless of the language used (God, Dieu, Gott, Dios, Bóg, and so on), the idea is generally the same. God is an all-powerful deity who consciously created everything that exists in the universe, from butterflies to black holes. Within that western tradition, God is also all knowing, so that He knows what you were thinking about that time. And you know which time I’m talking about.

Keeping the focus just on the English language, we’ve taken the word “God” and extended it as a metaphor to other situations, as we might do with any other word. This may seem irreverent, such as referring to the God of rock and roll. Really, though, the word is more confusing, because we also have a lower-case spelling, god, meaning “deity” (which we might capitalize, as with any other word). Thus when we say “Mars was the Roman god of war” there is no connection at all to our capitalized word “God”, meaning the Christian deity. Yet isn’t it strange that we don’t have entirely separate words that don’t sound alike?

In strong contrast to a simple anthropomorphic use of “God” to mean a powerful old man who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, some strains of Judaism see the creator of the universe as too big, too unknowable, too vast to be described with a human word. A word, after all, is just a human social noise, and out of respect and awe for the creator of the universe, that creator cannot be reduced to sounds that humans make. This belief that God cannot be named is also a very different conception of what God is, so much more than merely a human image. For people with this belief, God’s name could not be pronounced, or by extension, written (I’ve had Jewish students who would would write “G-d” in their essays).

We are moving here away from looking at how we use the word “God” to considering an idea of what is out there, what the nature of “God” is. The idea of a deity too enormous for language is more abstract than an old man with a beard. If we move intellectually in that direction, we begin to consider an idea that may be more difficult, in part because of the abstraction, but also because this idea is less clear and possibly contains questions that are unanswered.

If we don’t believe the traditional western view of God, we may still have a strong sense of something beyond ourselves, something that inspires us, something that gives meaning and beauty to life. But this sense of something—what do we call it? The word “God” may invoke traditional religions and may not feel like the right word.

Or other words may be used: spirit, supreme being, life force, creator. Those who need to be more concrete may reach back to earlier religions and say mother earth. Or—if you can handle this—that spirit, that something that needs a name, might even be called thought. Use your imagination even: the breath of the universe. Traditional Christians may ridicule all this, believing that these words are just attempts to avoid saying “God”. I’d say they’re right, except that such a response misses the point that the language is attempting to describe a different view of existence. The ideas themselves reach toward something so mysterious that we surely can’t know it.

As to using the word “God” to describe something bigger than ourselves, I want to cite a few lines from a song by Iris DeMent in the song “Keep Me God”:

I don’t know if there’s a church
That deserves to take God’s name
I just know that when I look around here I see
The hand of someone or something
That is bigger than me
And I call that God

Or for a completely different approach, more of a “don’t worry about it” attitude, listen to Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be”. If you know of something more beautiful than this video, I’ll give you a hug for sharing it with me. Maybe I’ll even tell you God’s secret name. Or maybe not.

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